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WORLD

Saudi Arabia's desolate gateway to war next door

By Henry Schuster
CNN

Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.

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An Iraqi soldier guards a border crossing with Saudi Arabia in 2004.

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JEDIDAT-ARAR BORDER CROSSING, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- There are no signs of life as I look across the Saudi border into Iraq. I get about as close as the Saudi border guards will let me, about a hundred yards from southern Iraq.

There is a two-lane road, blocked off by concrete barriers. It runs straight into Iraq. My guides tell me that if I walked to a cluster of streetlights on both sides of a small bridge, I would be in Iraq.

Of course, they apologize, they can't let me go there.

About a mile farther, on a slight ridge, there is a small Iraqi outpost that looks abandoned. No signs of life, no Iraqi border patrols and no coalition troops, just desert, stretching for more than 150 miles up into southern Iraq.

This border has actually been closed since Saddam Hussein's troops invaded Kuwait in 1990, reopening only for a month each year during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

The Saudis are trying to keep the war next door from being felt here and have built a number of defenses.

The security zone

We are inside a 6-mile-wide Saudi security zone that stretches across the 600 miles of sand and rock separating these two countries.

The lieutenant colonel from the border guards running this sector unfurls a map and shows me how the zone is set up.

There are elaborate measures to prevent people from crossing in and out of Saudi Arabia, including three berms made of rock and sand designed to prevent cars from cutting across the vast open spaces.

There's also a fence stretching part of the way, topped with concertina wire. It is going to be replaced with a more elaborate barrier that includes surveillance cameras and sensors.

A network of border posts stretch across the northern part of Saudi Arabia. They are manned by border guards, who also do daily and nightly patrols in the desert. They use thermal imaging cameras and also look for footprints, be they human or camel.

The colonel says the problem is not would-be insurgents crossing over from Saudi Arabia into Iraq, but rather drug smugglers trying to bring hashish across the border from Iraq.

We climb berms, ride along with the patrols and visit one of the outposts manned by the Saudis. Again, there is nothing to see as we look across into Iraq.

But all the patrols and all the berms can't keep the conflict in Iraq from spilling over into Saudi Arabia, a new report suggests.

The war next door

The report, called Meeting the Challenge of a Fragmented Iraq, is another Saudi view across the border. And its conclusions are pessimistic.

Nawaf Obaid, the Saudi national security consultant who wrote it (it is published by Georgetown's Center for Strategic and International Studies) says he doesn't see how Iraq will survive in its present form.

His report details the tensions between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds and concludes they are pulling Iraq apart: "I don't believe the three peoples have the will to live together."

Obaid isn't sure whether this means three separate states or some eventual sort of Iraqi confederation. When we meet in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, he tells me he's sure of one thing: "The situation is beyond repair."

The report raises the issue of Iranian influence in Iraq, detailing the level of infiltration he believes the Iranians have made into the Iraqi government and Shiite militias.

Although Crown Prince Sultan told me that Saudi Arabia views Iran as a friendly country, the views of Obaid and others speak of vast mistrust of Tehran. The prospect of a Shiite-run state on the Saudi border is not something taken lightly here.

Obaid's report argues that the Saudi government, which he believes has little influence over the situation in Iraq, must prepare for the worst-case scenario.

"This strategy must embrace economic, political, and religious factors, and present concrete plans for a response to each of the challenges a disintegrated Iraq would pose to the Kingdom's security."

One of those challenges is the border, and his report calls for a joint Iraqi-Saudi commission to deal with these issues. The Saudis have spent close to $2 billion to upgrade security up in this region.

The war at home

Physically, the berms and fences and concrete barriers may keep the war from spilling across. But no earthen wall can prevent the daily feeds from Arabic language news channels that show up on Saudi television screens nor can it stop the Internet.

"Iraq is the biggest rallying point for recruitment," says Obaid, talking about al Qaeda and terrorism. His is an opinion shared by several other Saudis I talked to.

It is no coincidence that a wave of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia began just weeks after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq got under way in 2003.

The most recent of those attacks took place on February 24, when a group of terrorists attacked the world's largest oil processing plant. They didn't succeed, a sign perhaps that the Saudi government's crackdown on homegrown terrorists has broken up al Qaeda cells here.

That's just part of the challenge facing the Saudi government and society. Some young Saudis make their way into Iraq to join the insurgency, although the border guards say they see no evidence they are crossing here in the north.

Obaid says that his research shows that even though two top insurgent commanders are Saudi, only about 10 percent of the foreign fighters who have joined the Sunni insurgents are coming from Saudi Arabia.

In the two case studies he cites in his report, the men crossed into Iraq from the Syrian border, lending credence to what the border guards are saying.

We leave the border region as night falls. This is the busiest time for the patrols who head out in their trucks and SUVs.

A last glance over into Iraq offers a desolate view, one echoed by the scenario being laid out on paper.

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